Will BT let JP create the first open network operator? One scenario for the mobile Web

by on July 14, 2009 at 11:21 pm

The Web exists because Tim Berners-Lee didn’t require any network operator to rewire its central switch. Google exists because nobody has to ask permission to create a new way to use the Web. These affordances for innovation are no accident: Sir Tim could give away the Web and Larry and Sergey could make billions of dollars for themselves because the architects of the internet’s original protocols were wise enough to reserve innovation for the edges, not the center of the network. The authors of what has become known as the internet’s realized that control of the network – technical, economic, political – could be radically decentralized, and that by enabling anyone who played by the TCP/IP rules to connect anything they wanted to the network, future media that they didn’t even dream about in the olden days would one day become possible. So the Web, cyberculture, the dot com economy, digital media, the refashioning of global economic production by digital networks, grew extremely rapidly.

The merger of the mobile phone and the internet has not grown anywhere nearly as rapidly as the web precisely because there is someone you have to ask for permission in the mobile world – the network operators. And network operators evolved from regulated monopoly telephony providers, who have done their best to prevent, rather than to facilitate, an internet-like ecology of small and large businesses, heterogeneous media, decentralized control, and a rising economic tide that lifts small boats and threatens huge ships that take a long time to turn. We have yet to see an owner of significant telecommunications network open their network by providing an open application programming interface (api)

Which brings us to JP Rangaswami:

JP Rangaswami talks to the travelling geeks

JP Rangaswami talks to the travelling geeks

(Source: JD Lasica)

JD Lasica’s photo was taken atop BT Tower in London, when British Telecom’s CIO of Global Services invited the Travelling Geeks to dinner in a private, revolving dining room in BT’s high-security antenna tower, a landmark on the London skyline I’ve often wondered about. How that dinner came to be is a story of how life happens online these days. A link from another blog brought me to JP’s blog, Confused of Calcutta, years ago; I read it via RSS regularly, and when I saw that the blogger was on Twitter, I started following him. When JP used Last.fm, it tweeted what he was listening to. I couldn’t help noticing that he listened to a fair amount of Grateful Dead music. So I started to correspond with him. When he visited the San Francisco Bay Area, he invited me (via Facebook) to join him for dinner. He had more than a few interesting things to say about the way media infrastructure might evolve in the future. So when I knew we were going to London, I introduced the Travelling Geeks to JP. He, in turn, invited us to dinner. It dawned on me that my blogger thinker Deadhead social media acquaintance wielded some clout at BT when we were greeted for dinner by the CEO of British Telecom.

It was probably JP’s idea to seat me next to Ted Griggs, the founder of Ribbit, a company JP had acquired. The seating was probably no accident. Here’s Ribbit’s elevator pitch. (Another way of describing Ribbit’s product, Griggs told me, as London revolved below us, would be “open API’s for [now BT’s] networks.”)

I’ve been writing about the future of digital media for a while now, and I think I’ve developed a pretty good spidey-sense for something that could change everything. When I met the people JP had collected and saw what they were doing (during a morning of demos after our dinner), I was reminded of nothing so much as the time I got to know Bob Taylor at Xerox PARC and started to realize that what they were doing on Palo Alto’s Coyote Hill Road with personal computers, networks, graphical user interfaces way back in the 1970s was going to be the foundation of the 21st centuries fundamental structuring technologies.

But Xerox management, of course, thought they were in the copier business and failed to take advantage of the fact that their research arm invented the GUI, the Ethernet, and the laser printer.

Will BT management realize that they aren’t in the telephone network operator business, and that someone in their midst has invited not only their future, but everyone else’s? Stay tuned.